Noted for being the most successful British commercial aircraft ever built (and that’s saying a lot!), the British Aerospace 146, better known as the BAe 146, was a small commuter jet that took the world by storm during the 1980’s and 1990’s, with its strange design but incredible efficiency being just what many airlines needed when it came to operating those short city-hopper routes.
The BAe 146’s roots can be traced back to the early 1970’s, following the launch of the Hawker Siddeley HS.146 project in 1973. The HS.146’s concept was to bridge the gap between Turboprop and Jet Airliner, being faster and larger than the HS.748 and rival Fokker F.27 Friendship, but able to maintain STOL (Short Take-Off and Landing) capabilities that some of the more popular small jets, such as the BAC 1-11 and the Boeing 737, weren’t able to manage. Hawker Siddeley’s plan called for a T-Tail design to give good short-field performance, while the aircraft was to be powered by four 6500lbf thrust Avco Lycoming ALF 502H turbofan engines. Four engines were chosen over the conventional twin-engine design due to there being no manufacturer capable of producing a 13,000lbf thrust class, high bypass ratio, turbofan engine at the time. Though the UK government took interest in this idea, and were even willing to back 50% of the costs with a state-funded grant in return for a share of the revenues from each aircraft sold, the recession of 1973, due in-part to the 1973 Oil Crisis, resulted in all work being halted in October 1974.
The 146 concept however remained something of a background pet, being tinkered and altered behind the scenes as Hawker Siddeley was absorbed into British Aerospace. The project was officially relaunched in 1978, the unique selling point of this aircraft being as a quiet, low-consumption turbofan aircraft, which would be effective at replacing the previous generation of turboprop-powered feeder aircraft such as the Vickers Viscount. The first order for the BAe 146 was placed by Líneas Aéreas Privadas Argentinas in June 1981. Prior to the first flight, British Aerospace had forecast that the smaller 146-100 would significantly outsell the 146-200 variant; however, airlines had showed a great level of interest in the larger 146-200.
The BAe-146’s specifications revolved around it being able to access small airports with short runways, as well as being a “feederliner”, used on regional services between large international airports and small municipal airports. The airframe of the aircraft and many other key areas were designed to be as simple as possible. The engines lack thrust reversers due to their perceived reduced effectiveness in anticipated conditions. Instead, the BAe 146 features a large airbrake with two petals below the tail rudder at the rear of the fuselage, which has the advantage of being usable during flight and allowing for steep descent rates if required. In addition, the aircraft has full width wing spoilers which are deployed immediately on landing.
Power came from four Avco Lycoming ALF 502 turbofan engines, which are fixed on pylons underneath the aircraft’s high wing. The ALF 502 was derived from the Lycoming T55 turboshaft powerplant that powers the Chinook heavy transport helicopter. Notably, the ALF 502 had a very low level of operational noise, much lower than most other competing aircraft. This was achieved partly by the engine’s high bypass ratio along with additional sound damping layers built into the engine. Each engine gives 6,970lbf, propelling the aircraft to a Cruising Speed of 498mph and a ceiling of 31,000ft. The choice to give the aircraft four engines was an unusual move, as at the time such a configuration had only ever been placed on international jet airliners. The advantages of adopting the four engine configuration, however, included greater redundancy and superior takeoff performance from short runways, as well as in hot and high conditions, making the 146 ideal for the ever rising market of STOL operations.
The BAe-146 was launched in May 1983 with charter airline Dan-Air, the first flight being between London Gatwick and Berne. However, unexpectedly, the 146 had soon caught the eye of American operators, namely Pacific Southwest Airlines (PSA), whose first 146 was delivered in July 1984. PSA would later go on to operate 20 of the type on services around Southern California, including the busy route between San Francisco, Los
Angeles and San Diego. This was followed by Air Wisconsin, who used the 146 to replace their fleet of turboprop Fokker F.27 Friendship turboprops. In 1985, Aspen Airways inaugurated the first scheduled jet service into Aspen, Colorado in the Rocky Mountains of the western U.S. with a BAe 146-100 operating from an airfield with an elevation of 7,820ft. It was announced in January 1987 that the BAe 146 had been selected to launch the first jet services from London City Airport; it was chosen due to its unmatched flying characteristics and ability to operate from so-called STOLports.
The 146 was introduced into Royal Air Force service in 1986 as a VIP transport; it was the first jet aircraft to be operated by 32 (The Royal) Squadron. According to Flight International, at least 25 executive aircraft have been produced for various customers, many of these had undergone conversions following airline operations.
In addition to making it big in the United States and the UK, the 146 was also popular in Australia and New Zealand, with Ansett Australia and Qantas taking delivery of several in the mid to late 1980’s. Canada also took on several, including flag carrier Air Canada and its regional subsidiary Jazz.
The 146 had very soon become the most popular British passenger jet export since the BAC 1-11, with nearly every national carrier having at least one. Some of these airlines included United Airlines, Northwest Airlines, American Airlines, Lufthansa, British Airways, Continental Airlines, Aer Lingus and Sabena (of which I once flew on one from Bristol to Brussels and back in 1999).
In the late 1990’s, plans were put forward to upgrade the range on the 146, and thus the Avro RJ series was born. This scheme revived the legendary name of A.V. & Roe, better known as Avro, famed for creating the Avro Lancaster and Vulcan bombers. This was done in an attempt to split out some of its commercial aircraft activities into separate businesses. Avro was set up in 1993 as a 50/50 joint venture with the Taiwan Aerospace Corporation, which was to inject £120 million into the new company with the intention to build a second production line in Taiwan, though this idea fell through due to unstable finance. British Aerospace decided to continue without outside investment due to the cost savings realised with the closure of the BAe 146 production line at Hatfield Aerodrome and the consolidation of production at Woodford factory. The Avro RJ series differ from the 146 in that they have improved engines and digital avionics.
Though plans were made for a further development of the Avro RJ series, including one prototype built, the plan fell through in November 2001 due to the aviation meltdown following September 11th. It was therefore decided that upon this the nearly 20 year old 146 design, with roots stretching back to the early 1970’s, would finally be retired, the last examples leaving for their respective airlines in 2003. In total, 221 BAe 146 and 166 Avro RJ’s were constructed, becoming the most successful UK jet airliner ever constructed, spurred largely on by its unprecedented success in America.
However, the BAe 146’s life, like that of most airliners, has not been smooth sailing. The BAe-146/Avro RJ has been involved in 13 hull-loss accidents with a total of 223 fatalities and one criminal occurrence with 43 fatalities.
The first and by far the most major incident happened on December 7th, 1987, aboard Pacific Southwest Airlines Flight 1771. David A. Burke, a disgruntled former employee of USAir, the parent company of PSA, boarded the aircraft with a .44 Magnum revolver, with the intention to kill his former boss Ray Thompson. Burke, a ticket agent, had been recently terminated by USAir for the petty theft of $69 from in-flight cocktail receipts and had also been suspected of other theft including receipts totalling thousands of dollars. With a legal injunction about to start, Burke, using his USAir credentials, was able to
sneak the firearm through security at Los Angeles International Airport, and proceeded to kill his former boss after writing a suicide note on the back of an airsickness bag. The haunting tape from the Cockpit Voice Recorder documented his brutal attack on the passengers and crew, killing at least five people including the two pilots before he took control and forced the plane into a nosedive. The aircraft smashed into a hillside near Cayucos, California at over 770mph, far beyond both the aircraft’s design capabilities and the speed of sound. The impact left a crater less than two feet deep and four feet across, and the 43 passengers and crew completely disintegrated upon impact, with the remains of 27 passengers still unidentified to this day.
Today the BAe 146 and its Avro RJ derivative continue to lead charmed lives in the world of civil aviation, but their domain is now primarily reduced to Southeast Asia and its native Europe. Most of the large American carriers such as United and Northwest retired their 146’s by 2005, though these aircraft have since seen further work elsewhere in the world. The 146 is slowly being phased out by most airlines as the market of STOL aircraft widens with aircraft such as the ERJ-170 and Canadair CRJ models, but one can still find their fair share of these magnificent little planes, humble heroes of the regional circuit. If the 747 is the Queen of the Skies, then the BAe 146 is a plucky princess!